Camerata Child’s Play India is delighted to have Professor Santiago Lusardi Girelli again as its visiting conductor, with a new group of visiting musicians from Spain.

On the concert programme, Girelli chose a work that is worth looking into, ‘Pavane pour une Infante Défunte’ (Pavane for a Dead Princess) by French composer Maurice Ravel (1875-1937). Ravel originally wrote it as a solo piano work in 1899 as a student of composition under Gabriel Fauré at the Conservatoire de Paris, and his first significant success. Fauré himself had written a Pavane also for solo piano in 1867, and this must certainly have been the imaginative springboard for Ravel. Ravel published the orchestral version of the Pavane for a Dead Princess in 1910. Fauré had also orchestrated his own Pavane in 1887. Clearly the teacher had set a path for the student.

The pavane was a slow processional dance that was immensely popular in the courts of Europe at the peak of the Renaissance period, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The word ‘pavane’ is believed to have come from the Italian ‘danza Padovana” (‘dance typical of Padua’), or from the Spanish “pavón” meaning peacock.

Ravel candidly confessed when questioned about the intriguing title, “I simply liked the sound of those words and I put them there, c’est tout. My only thought was the pleasure of alliteration.”  At another point, he elaborated: “Do not attach to the title any more importance than it has. Do not dramatize it. It is not a funeral lament for a dead child, but rather an evocation of the pavane which could have been danced by such a little princess [infant] as painted by Velázquez at the Spanish court.”

It was an extension of the fascination bordering on obsession that so many French composers around that time (Édouard Lalo, Emmanuel Chabrier, Georges Bizet and Claude Debussy come to mind) demonstrated for all things Spanish.

For those interested, it is possible to hear on YouTube a piano roll from 1922 of Ravel himself playing the Pavane. It is fascinating to actually watch a specialised self-playing piano (‘piano player’ or ‘pianola’) play such a roll. Not just the notes, but the pedalling, the dynamics, the lightness or heaviness of touch and other nuances are all reproduced faithfully. It is as if the invisible ghost of the performer is making the music at the instrument.

What is also instructive from this piano roll is the pace or tempo at which Ravel wished his Pavane to be played. He plays it in under 6 minutes, and was critical of pianists who were more self-indulgent. He admonished one such musician: “Remember that I wrote a pavane for a dead princess, not a dead pavane for a princess.”

On the other hand, Ravel’s biographer Benjamin Ivry tells us Ravel intended the piece to be played far more slowly than it tends to be played today. A contemporary music critic complained that Ravel’s playing of the work was “unutterably slow.” Obviously tempo is relative.

Ravel dedicated the Pavane to his patron Winnaretta Singer, Princesse Edmond de Polignac and heir to the Singer sewing machine fortune. She also commissioned works from other young composers of the generation, which included Igor Stravinsky, Erik Satie, Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc, Manuel de Falla and Kurt Weill.

Ravel was a master orchestrator, and his orchestral version is in lush colours of a symphony orchestra that our Camerata currently does not have the resources to perform, opting therefore for an arrangement for strings and flutes.

When Ravel mentioned Velázquez, he was of course referring to the series of portraits that the great Spanish painter Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velázquez (1599-1660), the leading artist in the Spanish royal court, had painted of the Infanta (royal princess) Margarita Teresa (1651-1673), daughter of Philip IV of Spain (who also reigned over Portugal and her dominions as Philip III of Portugal) during much of her tragically short life. One of these paintings, Las Meninas, which hangs at Madrid’s Museo del Prado, is considered Velázquez’ magnum opus. Margarita Teresa also features in Pablo Picasso’s interpretations of Velázquez’ Las Meninas, now in the Las Meninas room of the Museu Picasso in Barcelona.

Diego Velázquez Infanta

The Infanta was married at 15 to her much older uncle, her mother’s brother Leopold I of Austria. Despite the great difference in their ages, the marriage was a happy one, especially because the couple shared a love of theatre and music. It is said that even after they were wed, she addressed him as her uncle, and he used her nickname ‘Gretl’.

Her life was not an easy one. In keeping with the austere etiquette of the Spanish royal court , mundane pleasures such as reading or even looking out of a window, laughing or smiling or displaying her feet or footwear in public were forbidden.

Her dismal obstetric history (numerous miscarriages and four births of which only one child survived to adulthood) progressively weakened her, leading to her death in childbirth at just 21. Obviously continuous inbreeding within the Spanish Habsburg dynasty that she belonged to, contributed to this.

One of her prize jewels, the 36-carat Wittelsbach Diamond, was auctioned at Christie’s in 2008 for $24.3 million, the highest price ever for a diamond sold at auction. The diamond was obtained from India, either from Hyderabad or Bihar, as was customary for European royal families, and is one of the few remaining valuable Indian diamonds, in the league of the Kohinoor, Régent, Orlov and Hope diamonds.

Ravel’s ‘Pavane for a Dead Princess’ features in the 2012 Batman film ‘The Dark Knight Rises’, in Batman’s comeback-from-retirement scene at a charity ball, and is a clever musical means of foretelling the revelation of Miranda Tate as villain Ra’s al Ghul’s daughter (‘infanta’) Talia al Ghul. The ‘Dead Princess’ rises from oblivion to threaten the safety of Gotham City.

An edited version of this article was published on 17 August 2014 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)